Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Visit to Japan

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Hiroshima, Japan
April 11, 2016


MODERATOR: So we want to – I know it’s been a long day, so let’s get started with [Senior State Department Official]. So this will be senior State Department official, and you all know our briefer quite well and [Senior State Department Official]’s area of expertise. [Senior State Department Official] will talk a little bit about the importance of the venue here and the Secretary’s visit tomorrow to the peace park and museum, as well as – and you all – again, you know our briefer well – well steeped in issues of the security situation in this part of the world, so if you needed to ask about that, I’m sure [Senior State Department Official] could help flesh out your understanding. So did you have anything you wanted to open with, [Senior State Department Official], or –

QUESTION: If it crosses [Senior State Department Official]’s mind.

MODERATOR: Did you have anything you wanted to open with, or –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Depends on what you’re looking at. I mean, what you just described was –

MODERATOR: Yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: – the issue of where we are. I can say just one or two words –

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: Sure.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: – about that.

MODERATOR: Absolutely. Please do.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So it was the Japanese who, of course – as chairman or host of the G7 who decided what cities they would hold the various ministerial meetings as well as the leaders meeting in. They decided, partly because the foreign minister is a politician who hails from Hiroshima, to make Hiroshima the site of the G7 foreign ministers meeting. We were completely comfortable with that decision, and the net effect is that Secretary Kerry is here for the very first time as Secretary of State and as the very first Secretary of State, certainly since the war, to come to Hiroshima. Tomorrow as part of the G7 program he will visit the atomic bomb memorial, both the museum and the memorial cenotaph itself outside it. Now, on a bilateral basis, the former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, visited it in 2008, and then under the Obama Administration, beginning in 2010, first then-Ambassador John Roos and subsequently Ambassador Kennedy have attended the annual memorial ceremony here in Hiroshima and also gone on to Nagasaki. But as I said, Secretary Kerry will be the first Secretary of State, the first sitting cabinet secretary to visit.

That is very appropriate, as anyone who heard Secretary Kerry’s comments at the dinner that he hosted for foreign ministers during the Nuclear Security Summit will know, because one of his passions is nonproliferation and denuclearization. He is a champion of the President’s commitment to build a world without nuclear weapons, and so coming to Hiroshima now in the context of the G7 is very relevant to both his work, to U.S. policy, and will be reflected in the statements that the G7 foreign ministers plan to issue tomorrow.

What else can I tell you? There will be a wreath-laying ceremony after the ministers have gone through the museum. There will be school kids there, not as window dressing, but because the strong view of the Japanese and the strong view, certainly, of the United States is that any visit to Hiroshima should be a forward-looking visit, that our collective focus is on the world that we’re trying to create, not the world that we have left behind. So Hiroshima, you will all see if you go to the memorial itself, is a city that exemplifies both rebuilding but also hope. It’s a city of resilience and it’s a city dedicated to the importance of preventing war and avoiding the use of nuclear weapons.

QUESTION: May I ask –

MODERATOR: Go ahead.

QUESTION: The Japanese clearly have not left the past behind entirely, and there is huge interest in Japan on whether the President may come when he attends the G7 summit. Can you give us any sense of the possibility of the President coming? And I realize that’s hard for you to do from where you sit, but then secondly, can you give us some sense of what are the issues at play in the thinking of the Administration on whether or not the President should come? I mean, if the Secretary of State can come, why not the President, who has also made nonproliferation and ridding the world of nuclear weapons a pillar of his ambitions?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, President Obama made clear as early as 2009 that he, quote/unquote, “can come.” The issue is not that President Obama can’t come to Hiroshima, and what he said specifically was that he would be honored to be the first President to visit Hiroshima and he hoped to be able to do so. That’s different than whether or not he will come, which is a decision that the White House needs to make, as they make all decisions pertaining to the President’s travel. And it’s a decision that I don’t think has been made.

There are a lot of factors that go into the choice of an itinerary. The President’s come to Japan before. He has, however, demonstrated in a number of circumstances that he is not unwilling to go places and to do things that might be controversial. So I think it would be a mistake to impute to the deliberative process some great or insurmountable angst about the optics or the politics of a visit to Hiroshima. There are a lot of factors that go into these decisions, not least of which is the unbelievable pressure on the time of the President. As he announced, he is also planning to visit Vietnam on this trip in May, and so that creates some real tradeoffs and some decisions.

QUESTION: Really?

QUESTION: So he may come, basically, but no decision’s been made.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No decision has been made about whether or not the President would go anywhere in Japan other than to Ise-Shima, where the G7 summit is held.

QUESTION: When did he – do you remember in which speech he said that he would be honored to be the first U.S. President to come?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. It was in an NHK interview in the first year of his presidency, and I seem to recall that he repeated that in another public Q&A session.

QUESTION: One other thing on this, going back to the Secretary: The second-to-last or last question, I think, in the written Q&A that he did with a Japanese newspaper that you guys put out today and that was published today talked about – when it talked about – he talked about the goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, and then he also said, “But you need to” – this – that issue cannot be divorced from nonproliferation and strategic stability kind of more broadly. Can you help us understand what he meant by that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’m – at risk of exceeding my knowledge base, which is more in regional issues than it is in nuclear doctrine – that said, even to someone like me it’s obvious that America’s extended deterrent – deterrence and the certainty of our nuclear umbrella provides stability and security not only for our allies but for the region. And so our intense focus on managing the stockpiles of missile – fissile material, of creating significant if not impenetrable barriers to proliferation, of pushing back against those who seek to acquire or develop nuclear capabilities are urgent, real-world requirements. This is not a zero-sum relationship with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, so I – that’s how I interpret the Secretary’s answer.

QUESTION: What do you hope that – what does he hope that this, his visit to – tomorrow will reflect? What kind of – yeah. That’s basically it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the Secretary will speak to –

QUESTION: I could go on longer, but why bother? (Laughter.) (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: She’s falling asleep as she asks the question.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: A grateful nation and your colleagues thank you.

So the Secretary will speak tomorrow to what his experience was in visiting the memorial and what he thinks it meant. That said, I think and I hope that his visit will show that the reconciliation between the U.S. and Japan has advanced to an extraordinary level; that the American people and the Japanese people share a revulsion towards war and a determination to work for peace; that he admires, as I think most of us do, the resilience and the determination of the people of Hiroshima, who have rebuilt with love in their hearts, not hatred.

QUESTION: I’m not trying to be glib when I say this, but, I mean, just for me, like, going today to the museum and – it was so powerful.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: And then you kind of listen to what Donald Trump said about just giving Japan nuclear weapons, whatever – I mean, in your discussions with the Japanese and just in terms of how hard do those – how seriously are – from a potential Republican frontrunner for the President, do they take those comments and – I just think – I feel like in a little bit – just from talking to people, it looms over a little bit.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: My own experience as a diplomat in Asia is that our counterparts just don’t know what to make of comments like, well, let the countries in the region get their own nuclear weapons, or let them pay for their own defense when, in fact, they are paying a tremendous amount in support of the U.S. presence here. And the U.S. presence in Asia is very much in the interests of the United States itself. I don’t think people necessarily have really processed it, in part because it strikes so many Asians as wildly contrary to the understanding of U.S. interests that have been embraced and acted on by administration after administration after administration, whether they were Republican or Democrat.

QUESTION: And also totally against – Japan, we have a security alliance with them, and totally against Japan’s very staunch anti-war, anti-nuclear stance.

QUESTION: Yes.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.

QUESTION: Sir – tomorrow when the Secretary speaks about his experience visiting the museum, do you think it’s possible that he express kind of regrets or sorrow about what happened 70 years ago?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the – if you’re asking whether the Secretary of State came to Hiroshima to apologize, the answer is no. If you are asking whether the Secretary – and I think all Americans and all Japanese are filled with sorrow at the tragedies that befell so many of our countrymen – the answer is yes.

QUESTION: But can I just –

QUESTION: Have you – have you or anyone –

QUESTION: Can I just follow up real quick? Given that you said the Secretary and the President both want a world without nuclear weapons – I think everyone agrees that using nuclear weapons would be a terrible thing in the world – why not apologize that you did use it? I don’t see – why avoid that? I mean, what’s the rationale?

QUESTION: We want to apologize after going there today. I mean, it’s really –

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: – powerful.

QUESTION: What’s the rationale? If using atomic weapons is such a terrible, terrible thing – and we all hear with the Iran talks or with North Korea that the use of a nuclear weapon would be such a horrible, horrible thing – I mean, are you telling the world don’t use them, but if you do, you don’t have to apologize?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No one who has – it sounds like most of you have – has been to the war memorial and seen the incredible damage inflicted by an atomic bomb can come away with anything other than a determination to see that nuclear weapons are never used again. And as the only nation ever to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States feels and has a particular responsibility to try to work towards global disarmament and in the meantime, certainly, work to block proliferation and to limit the access to fissile material by those groups and people who would try to use them. There is no effort on the part of the people – the government of Hiroshima, the Government of Japan – to seek an apology from the United States, nor is there any interest in reopening the question of blame for the sequence of events that culminated in the use of the atomic bomb.

QUESTION: Can – sorry, go on.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The good news here is that both governments and both people are firmly focused on what’s important, and what’s important is the future, and what’s important is how we can work together to secure that future. That’s what Secretary Kerry is working on.

QUESTION: And then just one more: In the museum, the way some of the explanations or the context of the nuclear weapon may not be things that we in the United States or you in the United States Government necessarily take as established truths. For example, on one of the panels it claims that the war was essentially over but the United States needed to justify the high cost of the Manhattan Project, so it decided to use the nuclear bomb. How do you deal with issues like that? I mean, do you endorse that view of the atomic bomb’s usage, firstly? And if not, how do you deal with kind of the different visions of how this tragedy happened?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. The visit by the seven foreign ministers and certainly the visit by Secretary Kerry is in no way, shape, or form an endorsement of every caption or every label to an exhibit within the museum. He, as a G7 foreign minister, is showing his respect to the host, showing his respect to the city and the people of Hiroshima by visiting the museum at the suggestion of Foreign Minister Kishida, and then laying a wreath at the memorial. But he’s doing so with goodwill and good faith and consistent with his lifelong activism in the effort to push back against nuclear proliferation and to prevent the use of nuclear weapons.

Secretary Kerry is justifiably proud of the cause that he championed in negotiating a deal with Iran that has closed a clear and present danger of Iranian nuclearization, and he has been relentless in his effort to find a way through the impasse caused by North Korea’s categorical refusal similarly to negotiate an agreement. This is an issue that is near and dear to his heart, and I know that tomorrow’s going to be a very moving day for him.

QUESTION: Well, as you can tell, those of us who went there today were all deeply moved by what we saw and were affected by it. So have you – what have you done to prepare him for what he’s going to see and the impact it’s going to have on him?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well –

QUESTION: Was he there as a senator?

QUESTION: He said –

QUESTION: Yeah, did he go?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No.

QUESTION: He said –

QUESTION: No, he said he’s never been here.

QUESTION: – this is his first time here in Hiroshima, so –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No.

QUESTION: Period.

QUESTION: It’s gonna – yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m of the view that there’s nothing that anyone can give you to read or tell you that is really going to prepare you for the powerful personal experience, certainly, that I – that I encountered, and it sounds like all of you did as well. Secretary Kerry has been fully briefed and he’s had a chance to talk at some length with Ambassador Kennedy, who has made, I think, four or five visits to Hiroshima and to Nagasaki. Myself, Under Secretary for Arms Control and Disarmament Rose Gottemoeller, other U.S. officials who have visited have reported back to him, so he’s aware of it. He’s certainly had preparatory reading material for his visit here.

But again, I’m flagging that this is an issue that Secretary Kerry has been passionate about his entire career, and I think we can all anticipate that coming face to face with the reality of a city that experienced an atomic bomb, suffered significant casualties, and yet has built itself up not with toxic hatred but instead with compassion and commitment to peace is going to be inspirational.

MODERATOR: Okay, you guys good?

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: Can I have two more? Sorry.

MODERATOR: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Just in terms of North Korea and the missile testing they’ve been doing and the – I guess the engine they tested over the weekend, rumors of other hijinks –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hijinks.

QUESTION: Is there going to be a – I mean, that’s going to come up tomorrow, I assume. What’s the message from the U.S.? And in this context, as you mentioned, that Kerry’s been working hard on North Korea, are we going to hear anything from him on that in this nuclear context?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. All of the foreign ministers here for the meeting I think share the view that North Korea’s headlong pursuit of nuclear missile capability is tremendously destabilizing and is a priority in terms of security. The Secretary undoubtedly will talk about it. The pace of North Korean provocations and the spirit of defiance in the view of many of us – what’s the word – is underlied by a great fragility in the system. Strong countries don’t need to threaten their neighbor. Nuclear weapons do not make a country safe. The aggressive effort to develop or acquire the capacity to launch nuclear missiles will be the undoing of North Korea, not its safeguard. And there is no country on Earth that I know of that supports what North Korea is trying to do. And since North Korea is not a self-sufficient nation, notwithstanding the goal of its founder –

QUESTION: Juche, yes. (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: – it is a matter of time before reality catches up with North Korea.

Now, part of that reality is the continued willingness of the United States and the other partners in the Six-Party Talks to honor the undertakings that we made back in 2005 to normalize relations, to provide negative security assurances, to work on peace arrangements, to provide economic assistance. But all of that was then and is now conditioned on North Korea moving irreversibly and credibly along the path of full denuclearization. And the sooner that North Korea comes face to face with that, the better for all concerned, including them.

QUESTION: Is there a sense going into tomorrow’s session with the foreign ministers that there needs to be more time given to see if the new UN sanctions are going to be effective, or is the sense more that it’s time to consider additional unilateral or perhaps multilateral action against North Korea?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think that there’s a widespread belief that the sanctions under 2270, as well as the various unilateral sanctions that have been put in place, will start to bite on North Korea in a significant way over the coming weeks and months. But in addition to the unilateral sanctions that the U.S., South Korea, Japan, the EU, and others have put in place already, I know that there is a considerable amount of work underway about what further options could be deployed, either with or without additional North Korean provocations.

QUESTION: Including by China?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Including by China? Things that could be done, including by China?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not speaking for the Chinese Government. There are plenty of indicators that China is, in the first instance, moving to implement UN Security Council resolution 2270, and we have seen in the past that China has any number of national, unilateral means to inflict pain and signal its displeasure. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re taking some of those steps now.

MODERATOR: This is going to be the last one.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you. As you mentioned, the President has said it is honor to be the first President to visit Hiroshima, and –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It would be.

QUESTION: It would be, would be, yes – and also believe he has an interest with – in coming here. But I’m wondering – just wondering what is the obstacle. If he cannot come to Hiroshima, he – what is the concern in domestic politics, or what is the obstacle when you think about a visit (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I think it’s just a plain old mistake to frame this in terms of obstacles. There are a lot of things that President Obama would wish to do and be honored to do that he has not done and, as the clock runs out on his presidency, he may not be able to do. I wouldn’t read too much into a decision that hasn’t been made, as far as I know. The President wasn’t invited to come to Japan for the purpose of going to Hiroshima. He was invited to Japan as a G7 leader to attend the summit in Ise, and he’s coming to that.

QUESTION: Yeah, but he – I mean, respectfully, he also just launched like the last of four nuclear summits and is trying to make a big thing about a non – nuclear-free world. He’s going to be not so far from here. There isn’t anybody that wouldn’t see, if he didn’t come, that there was a deliberate decision not to come. No one would believe that it’s just a scheduling thing or he just couldn’t find the time. It’s like – I’m not saying that they would see it as a snub, I’m saying that it would be a deliberate decision not to come, and there’s not any – I don’t know anybody that would see it otherwise.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Well, unlike you, I’m unable to speak for everybody. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No, I’m sure – I mean, I’m just saying, like – respectfully, I just feel like to say, like, oh, he can’t fit it in his schedule is –

MODERATOR: That’s not what [Senior State Department Official] is saying, though.

QUESTION: No, I’m just saying, like, it would be a deliberate – obviously it’s a very weighted decision whether he should come or not, but the decision to do it would – you know what I mean? It – the decision –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I hear you, but – I’m telling you, from long years of observation, when it comes to what presidents do, not every decision is a binary yes/no decision. And the explanation for all the things that he may not be able to do is not, oh, he chickened out, or oh, there was some political obstacle. I don’t think you can look at the record of President Obama and say that he shrank at doing something that he thought was important because there would be political criticism. The issue of whether or not a senior U.S. Government official has the fortitude and the – whatever it takes to come to Hiroshima has been answered circa 7 o’clock this morning –

QUESTION: Right.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: – when John F. Kerry came to Hiroshima. Like, this is not a huge, let alone an insurmountable problem for the United States. So don’t read too much into a decision, and by the way, I am unaware of a categorical decision as to whether or not the President might visit Hiroshima during his next visit in May.

QUESTION: Actually –

MODERATOR: Okay, guys.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: We’ve got to call it.

QUESTION: Wait.

MODERATOR: We’ve got to call it.

QUESTION: Wait, just to –

QUESTION: Interject.

QUESTION: Yeah. If he comes to Hiroshima, the security issue is very important. We need some time for preparing the President visit. So there is a report the United States has sent the official to investigate the security conditions (inaudible). Is it accurate?

QUESTION: Advance.

QUESTION: That they’ve advanced Hiroshima.

QUESTION: Are they advancing –

MODERATOR: I think the question is whether or not – there’s reports that the White House has done a security advance, as if to indicate that –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, let the record show that I’m not going to answer a question about what the White House is doing.

QUESTION: Yeah, of course. Yeah, yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But part of me, who has spent a lot of time in Asia, suspects that if the White House sent an advance team to Hiroshima, everybody would know about it. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: All right, thanks, guys.

QUESTION: Thanks, [Senior State Department Official].